Thursday, March 3, 2011

Advertising the Automobile in Pre-WWII America: The Jordan and Advertising the Dream

Taken from my book, The Automobile and American Life. Check it out at Amazon.Com!

The Jordan and Advertising the Dream
The Jordan automobile presents a different story but with a similar ending. The Jordon was the result of the vision and energy of Edward S. “Ned” Jordan. Born in 1881 and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Jordan’s career included a stint in advertising at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton and in a similar position with the Jeffery Automobile Company, located in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In 1916, Jordan organized his own automobile company, located in Cleveland, Ohio, with the idea that the firm’s vehicles would manufacture cars that cost not quite as much as a Cadillac but more than a Buick. Always relatively expensive and assembled from parts, engines, and bodies made elsewhere, about 80,000 units were sold between 1916 and 1931. Normally priced over $2,000, the Jordan was marketed at the well-to-do.
The Jordon was noteworthy for several reasons. Ned Jordan had an uncanny understanding of well-to-do American consumers from the point of view of color, and from the firm’s origins, his cars could be ordered in a number of unusual shades, long before the color revolution of the late 1920s. Thus, as early as 1917 Jordan cars could be purchased in colors such as Liberty Blue, Pershing Gray, Italian Tan, Jordan Maroon, Mercedes Red, and Venetian Green. And when the “True Blue” Oakland was introduced in 1923, Jordan quickly followed with its 1923 Blue Boy model. Secondly, Jordan understood the post-WWI youth market and responded with the marque’s most famous model, the Playboy. Supposedly, the Playboy idea was the result of Ned’s dance with a 19-year old Philadelphia socialite, who quipped, “Mr. Jordan, why don’t you build a car for the girl who loves to swim, paddle and shoot and for the boy who loves the roar of a cut out?”44 Ned would later refer to this as a million dollar idea, and the Playboy was born. Finally, Jordan was a flamboyant advertising copywriter, and it would be in his Playboy ad copy written in 1923, “Somewhere West of Laramie,” that American automobile advertising would be transformed.
While there is little doubt that twentieth century advertisements serve as important cultural documents, there is considerable debate as to their meaning.45 In his Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan asserted that “historians . . . will one day discover that the ads of our times are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.” This is especially true in a capitalist economy, where consumption and persuasion are so important. Raymond Williams insightfully labeled advertising as capitalism’s “official art.” With regard to advertising, the work of Judith Williamson, Roland Marchand and William O’Barr all significantly contribute to an understanding of its meaning. Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising provides the reader with a step-by-step guide in the dissection of an advertisement. Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity is a powerful example of how a cultural historian can employ advertising to reconstruct the past. And O’ Barr’s work, while primarily aimed at using advertising to illuminate discursive themes in social history that include hierarchy, power, relationships, and dominance, has an excellent synthetic theoretical introduction. O’Barr follows along the lines of Marchand in arguing that social and cultural values appearing in advertisements are more a refraction than a representation. The two scholars also agree that audience response, while important to copywriters, is beyond the scope of the historian, and at any rate problematic. Past audience responses are simply impossible to accurately reconstruct. In the present, there is no simple way to ascertain meaning, for meaning involves the interplay of the naive with the critical, and thus there is an ultimate variance among interpreters. The problems associated with the use of advertising, however, can be extended to many, if not all of the various manuscript, textual, visual, and oral sources used by the historian.
In the early days of automobile advertising, the features of an automobile were often emphasized. For example an ad for the new 1917 seven passenger Oldsmobile claimed that
This light weight, eight cylinder car combines power, acceleration, speed, economy, comfort, beauty, and luxury in a measure hitherto undreamed of in alight car. The eight-cylinder motor, developing 58 horsepower at 2,6000 r.p.m., with the light weight of the car – 3,000 pounds – presents a proportion of power to total car weight of approximately one horsepower to every 51 pounds – an unusually favorable ratio. The comfort of the car is beyond description. Long, flat, flexible springs and perfect balance of chassis insure easy riding under any kind of going. The seats, upholstered with fine, long grain French leather stuffed with pliant springs encased in linen sacks, increase comfort to the point of luxury.
This style of advertising was swept aside by the mid-1920s. In 1923, Edward S. Jordan created the most famous auto ad of all time to move his colorful Playboy Roadsters.46 Jordan had a gift for writing advertising copy; in 1920 a Playboy ad suggested a visit to a local bordello:
Somewhere far beyond the place where man and motors race through canyons of the town – there lies the Port of Missing Men.
It may be in the valley of our dreams of youth, or the heights of future happy days.
Go there in November when logs are blazing in the grate. Go there in a Jordan Playboy if you love the spirit of youth.
Escape the drab of dull winter’s coming – leave the roar of city streets and spend an hour in Eldorado.47
While traveling on a train across the flat and monotonous Wyoming plains, a tall, tan, and athletic horsewoman suddenly appeared, racing her horse toward Jordan’s window. For a brief moment the two were rather close as the woman smiled at him; then she turned and was gone. Jordan asked a fellow traveler where they were: “Oh, somewhere west of Laramie,” was the desultory reply. Within minutes he composed an immortal ad that later appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Beneath an illustration of a cowgirl racing a sporty Jordan roadster against a cowboy straining to push his fleet-looking steed to catch up with her, there appeared these words:
Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer roping girl who knows what I am talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.
The truth is the Playboy was built for her.
Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race.
Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale.
Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.
The Playboy sold like hot cakes, and this ad galvanized the auto industry. Soon Chevrolet and Rickenbacker responded with ad lines “All outdoors can be yours,” and “The American Beauty,” respectively.48
Previously ads mentioned the features of the car, but with the Jordan ad new parameters came into play – freedom, speed, and romance. Emblematic was the fact that the practical Model T's life had come to an end. Now it would be art and color that was the key to auto sales.
The prosperity decade of the 1920s resulted in a remarkable restructuring of the American automobile industry and a drive towards consolidation as numerous small manufacturers dropped out of the marketplace. Given the drive towards efficiencies in production and distribution, intense pressures were placed not only on the workmen who assembled the cars, but also the consumers who bought them, increasingly on credit and after being exposed to more subtle and suggestive advertising. With more wealth and disposable income, consumers wanted more – more horsepower, more size, more colors and style, and more conveniences. The automobile was now an object of desire among all classes of Americans, and as such it transformed our personal and social habits, as well as the road and roadside.

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